Imaging and living God in a threatened world

Imaging and living God in a threatened world

Keith Rowe

Sun 07 Aug

Over three Sundays I have sought to address the persistent question: ’How might we image and dwell in God’ in a no-god world? My starting point each time has been a Biblical account of great figures, Moses, Jesus and Paul, caught in the act of rejecting an inherited way of imaging God and entering into a new ‘God-image.’ Today my starting point is the environmental crisis facing humanity – a crisis in large part due to human destruction of the environment and an over dependence on fossil fuels by so called developed nations. A month ago Katherine Jones shared with us her experience and passion expressed through her work as a conservationist. What I will say is like a theological reflection on Katherine’s passion. I will begin with reference to a recent encyclical of Pope Francis and then briefly draw on the insights of palaeontologist-theologian Teilhard de Chardin who died in 1955 as a prophet whose living voice was silenced by the Vatican but whose writing has become a gift to those who ask if or how we may image and live in God within an evolving and incomplete creation.

Pope Francis is a sign of hope in a wounded world and a wounded church. His informed and compassionate simplicity is like a light in darkness. In 2015 he issued a Papal Encyclical, ‘Laudato Si (Praise be to You): On care for our common home’. Papal encyclicals are usually addressed to the Bishops and/or members of the Roman Catholic community. In this one he seeks ‘to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’  It’s a conversation starter, his attempt to contribute to an ongoing and important discussion: whether we can learn to cherish rather than destroy the natural world. Francis begins with a cry from the heart: “Our common home is like a sister or mother to us. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted upon her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her- she groans in travail.” His words are direct and blunt: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He notes the increasing pollution of water supplies, the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species ‘which our children will never see because they have been lost forever’, the burning and destruction of Amazon and Congo basin forests that left alone function as ‘lungs of our planet’. Francis stands with Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox tradition that ‘we are called to acknowledge our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement   and destruction of creation.’ He suggests we have become captured by our own technological expertise, coming to believe we should do whatever we are now able to do regardless of how these actions impact on the wellbeing of creation or the life of our neighbour.

Francis celebrates whatever we might do as individuals to care for the natural world by modifying our level of consumption or growing trees, cleaning rivers and so on. But more is needed – a reshaping of what it means to be human, a movement from competition to compassion, from greed to generosity, from wastefulness to sharing, from viewing humanity as lord and master over the natural world to an awareness that we are stewards of creation. The western focus on individual rights and power over others needs to be replaced by a freshly born awareness that we live within an interconnected web of life and that the natural world of plants and animals is our proper and God-gifted home. We need to rediscover a sacramental approach to creation –that in dealing with the ecosystem we are dealing with holy things “because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us are dependent on one another.”

Francis seeks what he calls an ‘Integral Ecology’ – a way of thinking and living that recognises that care for the environment and care for the poor are linked. It is the vulnerable poor who suffer most from the pollution of waterways, exploitation of natural environments, air pollution, fouling of food sources and the rise of great cities serving a need for cheap labour to service a malfunctioning economic system. The poor are unable to soften the effects of environmental degradation after the manner of the wealthy. Francis devotes a section to the availability of fresh drinking water –“Access to safe, drinkable water’ he affirms, is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival.” He is passionate about the self evident truth that we live within a greed based global economic system dependant on a calculated disregard for the environment. Unless the wealthy learn to diminish their consumption the wellbeing of the environment and the situation of the poor will continue to deteriorate. He reflects the near consensus among informed Christian ethicists that global free market economics needs serious adjustment if the human family is to flourish and the environment be mended.  “Both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor must be heard together.” Francis challenges people of sensitivity to rediscover the basic conviction that we are one single human family living within a natural environment on which we all depend. We need to redefine the notion of human progress, learning to seek human and ecological community rather than profits by the few paid for by the many and subsidised by degradation of the natural environment.

So where does the church fit into all of this? Francis invites all Christians to enter into the ongoing debate, joining with people of good will in a re-discovered care for our common home. Unless we change our ways and learn to care for our world and our neighbour we inevitably set the scene for future war and violence. Francis particularly values the insights of indigenous communities who often suffer from the destruction of the environment and for whom ‘land is not a commodity but a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred place with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.’ Unless we recapture the Biblical insight that we and the natural world are all interconnected, that the world is a gift to be cherished, protected and lived with rather than dominated the future for humanity is bleak. “The soil, water, mountains: everything is as it were, a caress of God.”

Francis is clear that if we are to avoid leaving environmental and social debris, desolation and filth to coming generations we will need to escape from the rampant individualism and compulsive consumerism that shapes the life of too many people. We face, he suggests ‘a great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge.’

Francis betrays the theological foundation that informs his conviction when he writes: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain, in a dew drop, in a poor person’s face”. His words are reminiscent of the teaching of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) who wrote of God present within, rather than beyond the natural order. Teilhard represents an important shift in human imaging of God. As long as we image God as separate from the natural world and think of a vast gap between a ‘spiritual realm’ up there and an ‘earthly realm’ down here we will feed the idea that care of creation is less important than devotion offered to a distant God existing apart from the natural world. Teilhard de Chardin rejected any separation of the heavenly and the earthly. For him the natural world exists in God and God exists in the natural world.  Teilhard’s significant work as a palaeontologist was in China a place to which he was literally banished by the Vatican who feared the spread of his views. He was not permitted to publish his views. Teilhard was impatient with those who saw conflict between science and religion, the things of earth and things of the spirit or assumed that the natural world existed only to provide for human comfort and had no intrinsic value in itself. He asked how we might image God in an evolving, unfinished creation and what it means to be fully human in this mysterious, wonderful and evolving cosmos. Teilhard imaged God as creative love present within the natural order and within every human person. He imaged God as creative energy experienced as a sense of possibility at the heart of all life.

Whereas traditional Christianity had conceived of human life being the story of how we progress in a brief life span from a sin – stained birth towards life with God beyond death, Teilhard set human life within the 14 billion year story of the evolutionary unfolding of our universe. Traditional Christian theology placed the emphasis on God understood as creator, present at the beginning of all things. Teilhard, however, imaged God as the power of the future drawing all creation, natural world and human family, toward fulfilment in love. Love, the power of relationship, he claimed, is the engine room of evolution and he looked forward to a time when humans would learn afresh how to live together as members of a single family and within the natural world valued as treasured and shared home. For Teilhard God was not a figure above us but rather a destination ahead of us in the future, evolving with and within the universe. God is the glue that holds all things together and the lure that draws all reality into the future. The whole universe is on a journey into God. Teilhard described humans as ‘arrows of evolution’, expressions of evolution now conscious of itself. He celebrated human ability to cooperate with love-energy ever present at the heart of cosmic becoming. This journey into deepening and universal love Teilhard suggested is a journey into Christ, the Omega, the future we glimpse from afar yet touch in our following of Jesus.

In 1923 Teilhard reflected on a time when alone in the Ordos desert and wanting to celebrate the mass he was overcome by a sense the desert was impregnated with divine presence. That silent place became more than a place for prayer –the whole natural world became a prayer, a celebration of divine presence and grace. It was alive with God-love. He had been taught that Christ was present in the bread and wine of the mass, now he sensed the same transforming presence of Christ in and through all creation. God ‘happened’. We may not have been to the Ordos Desert but we have all been in places when we have known it’s time to be quiet, to put the camera away, to let the beauty and mystery of the world sink into our being, occasions when God happens within the colours and movement of nature. Take off your shoes, open your eyes, listen to the sounds of nature –  you are on holy ground.

How do we image God in an evolving universe and a world wounded by human greed? Why not as creative love at the heart of all things drawing all creation towards fulfilment. How we treat the natural world and how we care or not care for the poor of our world is defining the next steps in the evolution of our universe.

Some things to ponder:

How do you respond to Pope Francis’ suggestion that there is an essential link between care for the natural world and care for the poor?

It has become customary to ignore the challenge represented by the Green Political party by describing them as ‘just greenies’ as though their concern for the care of the natural world was extreme. Do we need to take them, their political aspirations and their core environmental concerns with a new seriousness? 

Ponder: “The day will come when, when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day for the second time in the history of the world humanity will have discovered fire.” Teilhard de Chardin, Towards the Future.

There are a number of creation stories/parables/meditations in the Bible: Try these: Genesis 1:1- 2:3; Genesis 2:4-3:24; Job 38-41; Psalm 104; Proverbs 8: 22 -31; Ecclesiastes 1:2-11.

Where is wisdom to be found? “Ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every living being.” (Job 12: 7-10) Is there wisdom within the natural world not available to us in our real or imagined cleverness?